Best Types of Ham: Which Do I Buy for the Holiday?
What is the best ham to buy for Easter or Christmas, or any season? Do you want a smoked ham? A honey ham? We’ll show you the best types of ham.
Baked ham is a time-honored tradition in America, especially for Easter or Christmas. (A lot of people also prefer ham for Thanksgiving, either as a complement or alternative to the traditional turkey.) Of course, it’s not that way everywhere in the world.
Even our best Easter ham would be very out of place in southern Europe or the rest of the Mediterranean region, where the spring lamb is the preferred meat for high holy days. It’s not that they don’t eat ham; in fact, some of the most sought-after hams in the world come from Spain and Italy. But Spain’s jamón serrano and ibérico, like Italy’s famous prosciutto di Parma and culatello and Germany’s Westphalian or Black Forest ham, are all dry-cured according to centuries-old traditions and take months—even years—to make.
Many of these air-dried hams are quite expensive; a jamón ibérico de bellota can sell for upwards of $100 a pound. They are eaten fresh, not cooked, and are sliced very thinly (shaved, even) and used sparingly in sandwiches and fine appetizers. Needless to say, this is not the type of ham you’re going to roast in the oven and serve at Easter dinner.
Thankfully, there are some very fine hams here in America that don’t involve all that time and expense, and are just right for the dinner table. For our purpose, there are three basic types of ham: fresh hams, country hams, and city hams.
- Fresh hams are rarely seen due to the popularity of cured hams. Because they are raw and uncured, they must be fully cooked. You almost have to get uncooked hams directly from the butcher or even the farmer, as nearly all hams in this country are cured.
- Country hams are closer to the European tradition: the pigs are fed fruits and nuts for more flavorful meat, which is dry-cured in salt, smoked over hardwood and aged…sometimes up to seven years. These hams have a more intense flavor and, because they lose a lot of water during the aging process, are much drier than brined hams. They can also be quite expensive.
- City ham (also smoked ham, honey ham) is the most familiar to the majority of Americans. Instead of being dry-cured, it is soaked in brine. This allows the cure (salt, sugar and small amounts of nitrites) to better penetrate the meat and cut back on curing time. It’s also much more tender and moist because there is less water loss. Many hams are only partially cooked so they retain more moisture but are still ready in a reasonable amount of time. A cured and smoked ham gets a delicious savory flavor from being smoked over hardwoods like hickory, oak, apple and cherry. If they’re cold smoked—which takes a lot longer—they can also be quite expensive. And many of these hams, known as honey hams, receive a final finishing touch: a sweet, spiced glaze of honey, possibly with added brown sugar.
Whether your idea of the best type of ham is a smoked ham, honey ham, or one that combines both flavors, you’ll generally be able to choose one of several options. And which is the best ham for you will depend on what you want from your holiday ham both during and after your celebration. So what is the best cut of ham? We’ll help you choose what kind of ham to buy:
The traditional bone-in ham provides maximum flavor and classic presentation. Not only does meat on the bone typically cook slower than boneless meat, it also can cook more evenly since the bone conducts heat. Also, proteins like albumin and collagen in the bone release gelatin, which adds substance and a rich mouthfeel. Most importantly, as any serious home cook can testify, the ham bone produces an excellent soup that serves as a vehicle for beans or split peas.
Best for: classic table presentation; slow, even cooking; soup lovers
The Best Spiral Ham?
A spiral-sliced ham may be the best type of ham for those who are not fond of the task of carving. The smoked ham is placed on a spit and rotated against a blade while moving lengthwise so it’s sliced in a spiral, right to the bone. It is nearly impossible to spiral cut a ham at home; this is best left to the professionals! But once you have one, all you have to do is cut along the bone, and perfect ready-to-eat slices fall right off the spiral cut ham! Plus, if you have a glazed ham or “honey ham”, the spiral slicing makes it easy for some of that sweet, delicious honey glaze to find its way inside the meat.
Best for: convenient serving; maximum glaze penetration
While a spiral-sliced ham is about as convenient as it gets, a boneless ham gives you perfect slices…and no waste whatsoever. You can carve off a perfect ham steak in seconds, even though it won’t have the distinctive center bone many people love. This is the best type of ham to use for chicken cordon bleu or for the sandwich lover; pair it with a nice wheel of Swiss cheese and you’ve got lunch handled for the next week! Some companies even spiral-slice a boneless ham for maximum convenience and glaze penetration, producing the best of both convenient worlds. A boneless ham may also be the best ham for Thanksgiving, as it’s so easy to serve when you already have a turkey to carve…and the sandwiches are perfect for the evening football game!
Best for: convenient serving; zero waste; sandwich lovers
How Much Ham Will Feed 12 People for Christmas?
Most people eat around ⅓ pound of ham, so if you’re serving boneless ham a 4-pound ham will do the trick. With a bone-in ham you have to add extra for the bone; allow ½ pound per person, or a 6-pound bone-in ham. Factor in more if you want those great leftovers!
We have another article with tips on how to bake a ham, carve it, and serve it as part of a traditional Easter ham dinner menu. (As an added bonus, these tips also work for Christmas ham.) If you’re an adventurous cook and want to try cooking your ham on the grill, you’ll want to go with a bone-in ham. Grilling a spiral-sliced ham on the rotisserie is a recipe for disaster, but it can certainly be done in a foil pan over indirect heat.
Once you’ve chosen the best type of ham for your holiday feast, save some money on it with a Swiss Colony coupon.